The Western Producer

February 1, 2001

Fall best time to pack pounds on cows

By Barbara Duckworth
Calgary bureau

CLARESHOLM, Alta. – A few thin cows in the spring may not seem serious, but over time they cost money.

They give birth to weaker calves, produce less milk and take longer to get pregnant.

"The effect of nutrition on reproduction has been known for several decades," said beef nutritionist Richard Whitman of Billings, Montana.

"Your target is a high percentage of cows bred and bred early," Whitman told beef producers at a cow nutrition seminar in Claresholm.

A feeding program that includes mineral and protein supplements is one way to ensure cows get through the fall and winter in good shape.

"You are more than likely to have a cow that will remain an early calver and be more productive throughout her life."

Condition scores should be taken when cows are pregnancy checked. With some experience, a quick palpation in the short rib and tail head regions can determine the amount of muscle and fat.

A condition score is a rating of how much flesh a cow carries. The ideal score is three on a scale of one to five.

Cattle should be sorted according to age, size and stage of pregnancy because each group has differing nutritional needs.

Replacement heifers and first-calf heifers are still growing so they need a richer diet to ensure they properly develop.

The breed should also be taken into account because some larger-framed breeds require more feed to stay in good shape.

Winter is not a good time to pack pounds on cows. Offering good feed or silage is expensive and may not be enough to meet all their needs plus gain weight.

As well, cold stress makes weight gain a constant struggle, with some cows actually losing 40-50 pounds over the winter. At calving, the cow may lose twice the birthweight of its calf.

"There are days you feed them all they'll eat just to hold ground," said Whitman.

Fall is the best time to put weight on cows. The weather is mild, and there is usually plenty of feed available in hay regrowth, stubble fields, straw bales, swaths and fall pasture.

"At this time producers typically coast because their cows' requirements are low."

While this used to be common practice, he said, the conventional wisdom is changing.

"What you do six months ahead of time determines the success of the spring pregnancies."

High-quality feed is necessary for fall weight gain. Fall forages are a good source of total digestible energy, but plants are more mature in the fall with more coarse stems than succulent leaves. They are harder to digest so the nutrients are locked up.

Cattle may look like they are grazing heartily in the fall, but they may be making little headway because of the forage's poor nutrient quality.

Offering free choice minerals and protein can stimulate rumen microbes that are cows' real digestive system.

"The prime thing is, remember you are managing billions of rumen microbes that live in her stomach."

Microbes break down fibre and release additional energy.

The crude protein value of forage is more obtainable with protein supplements, especially for young, growing animals.

"This puts more condition on her back."

It can take as long as 120 hours to complete the digestive process. Supplements can cut digestion time in half and help extract more energy for the cow.

Research shows mineral supplements can increase the yield of digestible nutrients by as much as 19 percent. This can increase average daily weight gain by an additional 1�5 of a pound. With the right program, an extra 60 to 80 lb. of weight can be added during the grazing season.

Supplement requirements are low and can be met with cake or loose form on a free choice basis.

Whitman recommends a balanced offering of supplements rather than a single dose of a particular nutrient like copper or selenium. He also suggests using products that release nutrients slowly.

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